Henning: UM-MSU playing for different stakes
East Lansing – It was now pushing evening in East Lansing. The Michigan-Michigan State game was archived, a 32-23 victory for U-M, which kept a football team from Ann Arbor unbeaten and stuck its Big Ten neighbor with a sixth consecutive defeat.
Time to get busy with remaining chores.
“Definitely a sense of relief, but you can’t relax now,” said Jabrill Peppers, the Michigan all-purpose wizard who isn’t inclined to relax where a football is concerned.
“We’ve got Durkin and Maryland coming,” Peppers continued, having caught his breath following a 90-some-yard return of a fumble for the game’s final two points, and now referencing D.J. Durkin, the former Michigan defensive coordinator who’s Maryland’s head coach. “He was my coach. So I already know what type of game this is going to be.”
Michigan’s and Peppers’ to-do list is rather concise. That’s because the goals are succinct.
The Wolverines want a shot, first, at the Big Ten championship as part of a possible slot in the NCAA Final Four playoff. The blueprint involves Saturday’s assignment against the Terrapins at Michigan Stadium, followed by a potentially gnarly trip to Iowa, then a home tussle against Indiana ahead of a certain season-ending fracas at Ohio State.
If all goes well, and it’s at least a 9 on the If Scale, Michigan can expect a seat at the Big Ten championship game, very possibly creating a rematch of Michigan-Wisconsin, which when they first met on Oct. 1 ended in a bruising 14-7 victory for the Wolverines.
Michigan State wishes it had such pressures.
The Spartans have an opposite-end task in their final four regular-season games, which at the moment figures to be as much football as Coach Mark Dantonio’s team will play in 2016.
MSU will try and put away a severely challenged Illinois gang Saturday at Champaign. Then again, why should anyone consider the Illini, at 2-6, any more troubled than the Spartans, also 2-6, when it’s a home game for new coach Lovie Smith’s lads?
“I think we’ll be ready,” said Mark Dantonio, the Spartans head coach who would have uttered 2016’s most shocking coaching words if he had said anything differently Saturday.
But he added, more insightfully: “I thought we had an edge to ourselves today.”
That qualified as welcome news from Spartans headquarters. MSU has been almost an anti-MSU team in 2016. Little defense. No sense of four-quarters stability on offense. It simply has not been a Dantonio-grade autumn in East Lansing.
Worse for the Spartans, they have no apparent payoff beyond their remaining four obligations against Illinois, Rutgers, Ohio State, and Penn State.
They would need to win all remaining games to finish at break-even, which generally is the point at which bowl invitations can be extended.
The Spartans have lost so many games to teams of all shapes and pedigrees it’s a fanciful thought to imagine they could beat the likes of the Buckeyes and even the Nittany Lions, to say nothing of their no-guarantee dates the next two weeks.
This season, perhaps unlike any in memory in East Lansing, has made little sense. Not after a string of seasons in which the Spartans won at least 11 games and seemed destined to be a heavyweight contender for as long as Dantonio was in charge.
Now they’re all trying to comprehend how such a team, such a program, could have lost on six consecutive Saturdays.
“It’s mentally grueling, to say the least,” said MSU quarterback Tyler O’Connor, whose autumn of strife has been a mirror image of his team’s. “It’s not the type of year we planned on.
“But you saw out there today,” he said, referring to MSU’s second-half comeback in which the Spartans outscored Michigan, 13-5, “people don’t give up here.”
His friend and Spartans tight end Josiah Price had similar views. Delivered, perhaps, with a degree of fire Dantonio might appreciate.
“We’re gonna show up and lay everything on the line,” said Price, who was cheered Saturday by MSU’s 217 rushing yards.
“We ran the snot out of the ball,” said Price, who even mentioned a particular word that hasn’t often been heard at Spartan Stadium in 2016. “It was fun to run to be part of it. It was fun to run the ball. L.J. (Scott, running back) had a fun day.”
Michigan, of course, has more festive possibilities ahead, explained by that immaculate record and its No. 2 national ranking. It’s heady stuff, especially when your defense ahead of Saturday was ranked No. 1 in the land.
At least until it allowed the Spartans 401 yards and 23 points. Just the tonic, perhaps, that U-M coach Jim Harbaugh might find useful in shrinking heads.
Peppers was certainly on board there.
“We definitely needed that,” he said. “We definitely can’t go into Iowa playing like that. We can’t go into Maryland playing like that. We have some tough teams coming down the road.
“We needed this – a little bit of wake-up call.”
So, time to shake off any remnants of Michigan-Michigan State week. Time to finish business – for two teams, even if they’re hardly playing for the same stakes.